Children and Competition: A Discussion with Hilary Levey Friedman

It’s not unusual for kids today to be involved in multiple activities, and with that comes competition.

Between after-school clubs and sports teams, you might find yourself wondering how much is too much for your child. Hilary Levey Friedman, author of “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture,” studied 95 families with elementary school-aged children competing in artistic, athletic or academic activities—specifically dance, soccer and chess—to answer that very question.

We spoke with Levey Friedman ahead of her presentation at Attea Middle School in Glenview Wednesday, April 23 at 7 p.m. Her talk, “Playing to Win: Raising Healthy, Competitive Children,” will be presented by Family Action Network.

Make It Better: There is such a thing as healthy competition, but how do you know if things have gone too far? 

Hilary Levey Friedman: We will face competition in our lives, whether that’s in an organized setting or not. You’re not always going to get the romantic partner that you want, you’re not always going to get the job you want or get into the school that you want. These are sort of normal competitive experiences that we have to have the psychological capability to deal with, both to succeed but also to recover when it doesn’t work out the way that we want it to. So there are all these competitive experiences we have in life, and sometimes that goes too far, or there’s too much pressure placed on kids.

What you want to do is concentrate on the positives and expose your children to this form of competition when they’re younger so the stakes aren’t as high.  [This way,] they learn these skills when they’re young, so when they’re put in a situation where it is higher stakes—whether that’s standardized testing, college admissions, whatever the case may be—they’re better equipped to deal with it.

What else can parents do?

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I give parents, and it seems so obvious, is find out who the coach or teacher is who is going to be working with your child. You need to ask questions at the beginning, like, “What are their qualifications? What training do they have?” And also, “What training or education do they have in working with children of that age?” Because it’s not the same experience to coach an 8-year-old girl as it is to teach a 12-year-old boy. Once you’ve done your homework and you feel comfortable and you trust this person to teach your child, then you need to take a step back and say, “OK, I need to not intervene for a few months.” You need to give them time to develop a relationship, to teach your child and rely on their own expertise.

What can schools do?

Just giving children the opportunity to explore different things, because not everyone is going to be great at the same things, but everyone can find something that they’re passionate about or something that they excel at. Some schools might emphasize athletics too much, and that can be harmful to kids who aren’t successful in that realm. What we want to do is create options for kids so that they have a choice and they can explore different parts of their personality and find what clicks with them. That can lead them to a healthy, competitive experience.

Is there anything else parents should know? 

If you’re thinking deeply about these issues, you’re probably doing the right thing for your child. It’s easy to get sucked into these worlds. You make one decision, and that snowballs into a major time commitment. What’s more important is that your child finds something that clicks with them, and if they want to keep doing it, even if they’re not the best, they should stick with it. You should support them because—you never know—they could become the best someday. But if they really have that intrinsic motivation to participate, then that’s a very good thing for the child.

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